Flake White

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Flake White is a seductive mistress, a toxic yet stunning white pigment derived almost exclusively from lead, that is known for creating the illusion of “warmth” in flesh tones despite it’s chilly name. Flake White as a pigment and “color” is only available in oil paint, so it may be unfamiliar to those working primarily in other painting and drawing media.

As a white paint, it is incredibly versatile and mixes well with every other color in on a painter’s palette due to its low tinting strength. “Its importance has been immeasurable, and is the only material that has been consistently used from ancient times to the present. Since white in painting is the equivalent of white in nature, it has been essential to every aspect of painting: from flesh to skies, and so on” (Source 1).

The most basic principal of seeing color is how light is reflected & absorbed. An object is white when it reflects the most light rays away and black when it absorbs them all. White paint is white because it absorbs almost no light into its own body. Lead white’s pure whiteness comes with a cost--in its time it has poisoned artists, factory workers, women looking for beauty fixes and children who were attracted to the strange sweet taste. Beautiful, but deadly, lead white has been dubbed the most important pigment in western history--and artists still love it today.

While an alternative to lead white was introduced in the 1780s for watercolors, a suitable alternative in oils was not available until Titanium White was invented just before World War I, leaving artists enamored and beholden to the pure and lovely flake white (Source 2). 


Flake white is one of the oldest synthetically produced pigments. It is also one of the most permanent. Some of the earliest documented descriptions of synthetic inorganic pigments were recorded by the Roman, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History. Pliny wrote about the very best white pigment of his time that came from Rhodes, Greece (Pliny's life and death is connected to the AD 79 Mount Vesuvius Eruption). The process of attaining that brilliant white pigment was a semi-simple equation of metal + acid = pigment. By putting shavings of lead over a bowl filled with vinegar, the action of the acid on the thin metal would cause a chemical reaction, leaving a white deposit of lead carbonate. Rhodes workers then ground the lead carbonate into powder, flattened into little cake-like discs, and left it to dry in the summer heat, creating the world's finest white (Source 2).

A lil’ Dutch recipe for lead white pigment had a bit more flair to it. In Holland, during Rembrandt’s time, the Dutch 'stack' process of making the purest lead white pigment involved clay pots and vinegar, much like the process in Rhodes, but with one added one secret ingredient--buckets & buckets of manure straight from the farm.

The lead workers of Holland would line dozens of clay pots up in small buildings, stack thin strips of lead inside the clay pots, fill the bottom of the pots with vinegar, and heap animal dung into any gaps. The building was then sealed up for a period of about ninety days, during which time the action of the acetic acid, oxygen and carbon dioxide produced in fermentation of the stagnant heat, poisonous metal, and raunchy animal dung, basic white lead carbonate formed in flakes and scales on the surface of the lead strips. The purest, most desirable and cleanest of all whites had formed in a hothouse of vinegar, manure and lead. The lead carbonate was removed by scraping it off the lead, and then ground into flake white pigment ready for use in all its glory.

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In western cultures the color white represents purity. In China & Japan, white is used to show death and sickness. Lead white had been used unsparingly in makeup since Egyptian times and continued use cosmetically by Roman women and Japanese Geishas. Lead based creams and makeups made its way onto the dressing tables of women of all complexions well into the 19th century--despite knowing more about lead white’s insidious nature. For centuries the dangers of lead white were ignored (Pliny had warned us all that lead white was, in fact, poisonous in his Natural History) (Source 2).  

Maria Gunning, a true and tragic fashionista, was the absolute “it girl” of London in 1752. She was astonishingly beautiful and tantalizing. Daily, she spread a thick cream made of lead white all over her face and rouge on her lips and cheeks to give her a alluring look. Her husband (the Earl of Coventry) learned of the dangers of lead and urged her to quit applying the poison to her face. She just couldn't give up her toxic makeup. Blue lines climbed all over her skin, the poisoning cursed her with constipation, it made her go mad, and then, it killed her. In 1760, at the young age of 27, Maria Gunning was another victim of deadly fashion (Source 3).

Bloom of Youth was a foundation created by cosmetics company George W. Laird in the 1870s, advertising a youthful and mysterious appearance with a deadly main ingredient, lead white. That youthful appearance came at a high price--many women applied Bloom of Youth diligently as they were promised an opalescent complexion and consequently died of makeup overdose (plumbism, saturnism, or better known as lead poisoning) (Source 2).


We invite you to our store to the south this month and next, as our Bowling Green gallery space has been filled with work by five of the instructors who appear on our Spring 2017 class schedule.

Debra Buchanan, Paul Brand, Katie Delay, Donna Ebert, and Jennifer Giovannuci have submitted works to our 'Meet the Teachers' exhibition which they feel showcase the skills taught in their workshops held at our Depo stores. From drawing to painting, acrylic to oils, and decorative to foundational, the exhibit presents an exciting mixed bag of both technique and medium - all presented by exceptional professionals.

The above photo is of a stunning oil painting, titled Il Ragazzo, completed by anatomist, painter, and Art Supply Depo instructor Jennifer Giovannucci using Flake White. This work is currently exhibited just above our registers (arranged adjacent to works by Donna and Paul) at the Bowling Green store, and we feel quite lucky to have such a beautifully rendered backdrop to work alongside everyday.  On her use of Flake White, Giovannucci noted that this white is more transparent and luminous than other colors. The young man in the portrait has a truly radiant skin tone, which can be attributed to Jenny’s masterful and delicate touch, as well as extensive understanding of how to build up flesh tones using Flake White as a base.

When applied in thin layers, it is wonderfully transparent. When applied thick, it is heavily dense and opaque. Regardless of how it is applied, it is a luminous and bright opalescent white that bounces light off the canvas in a joyous barrage of glory.  If that description seems overstated, it most likely means you haven’t used Flake White in a painting! It is rare that any mineral-derived color is both lovely when used transparent and in thick layers. Most mineral colors, unlike chemically derived pigments created in a chemistry lab, are only capable of creating one tone - referred to as a “mass tone” - that does not change or shift color regardless of application. Chemical colors are usually “chameleons of color,” never a mineral color. Herein lies the obsession with Flake White. It’s transparency and luminosity make it the only white to use when painting human flesh tones. Titanium and Zinc whites can cause flesh tones to look truly dead. Human flesh is actually transparent, and Flake’s transparency helps to create the illusion of supple, natural, healthy skin. Flake White is a “warm” white that has a faster drying time than titanium white, which can dry notoriously slow in any oil paint mixture.

To see Jennifer's thoughtful use of this pigment, visit our Meet The Teachers exhibit. The show opened January 9th, 2017 and is available to view anytime during business hours through February 20th. A Closing Reception where you can (you guessed it) meet the teachers, ask questions, and sign up for classes will be held on Saturday, February 18th from 1-5pm. We'll have sweet treats to share at the event, which is free and family friendly.


Flake White is classed as toxic which means that care must be taken to avoid ingestion of this pigment or paint mixtures containing this pigment. Flake White can, however, be used safely with the right precautions and studio practice. Extreme care should be used in handling dry powder pigment so as not to inhale the dust. Do not smoke, eat or drink while using the pigment in any form, including in a paint binder.

Disposal of the lead waste from the painting process is also problematic. Throwing lead out with in the garbage, or burying it in your back yard, is prohibited by law. Lead paint, the tubes it came in, as well as rags and solvent used for cleaning when working with lead, are considered hazardous waste and have to be disposed of at hazardous waste sites.

Gamblin's Flake White Replacement was created to keep the same working properties of traditional Flake White but without the dangers of working with paints that contain lead. For techniques where the artist wants more translucency, such as classical portraiture to show the depth of skin, then Flake White Replacement or lead white are best (Source 4).

We are proud to stock paints and mediums by companies like Gamblin, Williamsburg and M. Graham who are working in collaboration with painters that want to eliminate solvents from their painting process. They’ve developed the best and broadest range of safe and solvent-free oil painting materials available. For many artists, Gamblin's Solvent-Free Gel has become a go-to medium. It supports the broadest range of painting techniques with the least compromise across color, dry time, texture and mark-making. Williamsburg’s Wax Medium contains absolutely no solvents while still being able to give paint a very fluid and silky feel. Using natural oils is another solvent-free option. M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd Medium is a great and safe alternative for your brush cleaning process -- it removes color without creating solvent hazards.


  1. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/palette/palette_white_lead.html#.WIFicFMrKM8
  2. Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, 2002
  3. Victory Finlay, The Brilliant History of Color in Art
  4. https://www.gamblincolors.com/getting-the-white-right-by-robert-gamblin